North Korea expert: Communication, understanding key to defusing tensions

Nightmare scenarios are frightening, expert says, but not inevitable

Philip Yun, Executive Director of Ploughshares and a former State Department senior advisor for North Korea Policy under President Bill Clinton, gives a speech for the Juneau World Affairs Council at KTOO on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Philip Yun presented his audience with a terrifying concept.


Yun is a former U.S. diplomat and the executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, which works to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. He was presenting KTOO’s 360 North studios on Wednesday and pointed to the recent instance of a missile alert system in Hawaii accidentally going off.

Yun painted a picture of that happening, but on a national scale.

“In that circumstance, an alarm like that,” Yun said, “the president of the United States will have 10 minutes to decide whether to launch one weapon in response or a thousand.”

Yun’s talk, entitled “North Korea, Bellicose Tweets and Other Nuclear Challenges We Face,” and put on by the Juneau World Affairs Council, was filled with apocalyptic images and concepts. Some in Alaska have already envisioned these scenarios with the state in range of North Korean missiles.

He detailed the rising number of missile and nuclear testing that North Korea has undertaken during the rule of current leader Kim Jong-un, and Yun said the aggressive attitude (and Twitter persona) of current U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t helping matters.

“When I was in South Korea back in December, it’s not Kim Jong-un they’re worried about. They’re worried about Donald Trump,” Yun said. “That’s the new factor here.”

Yun did say the Trump Administration’s policies of pressure, sanctions and deterrence are working just fine, but the best way to ease tensions is to begin a dialogue.

Yun said that when he was working under President Bill Clinton, talks with North Korea were going well. At that point, Yun said he understood what Korean leadership wanted. Now that the two sides aren’t talking (other than occasional diplomatic trips from former NBA player Dennis Rodman), there’s no way to know what the North Koreans are thinking. Without knowing what they’re thinking, we tend to assume the worst.

“Americans, for the most part, look at North Korea as stereotypes,” Yun said. “We look at North Korea not as they are, but as they wish them to be, because sometimes we need a boogeyman.”

Yun said the efforts of every single person, even those in Alaska, can make a difference. If we can start changing our attitudes and perceptions of North Korea locally, that can spread.

North Korea, by Yun’s estimation and that of other experts, is stockpiling nuclear materials and missiles more for self-defense than for an attack. Yun pointed out that North Korean leaders know that if they attack the United States, North Korea will “cease to exist,” as Yun put it.

Having nuclear weapons, Yun explained, is one way to maintain power. Foreign powers will be more willing to attack countries that don’t have nuclear capabilities, as Yun explained (using Iraq as one example). If North Korea can build its arsenal and ensure that it won’t be attacked, Yun explained, the country can start focusing on its widespread economic problems.

Understanding North Korea’s motivations is impossible, Yun said, if this nation’s leaders don’t start a dialogue with the North Korean government.

“There’s the saying, ‘know your enemy like you know yourself,’” Yun said. “I cannot emphasize that enough, because that impacts the policies that you all are going to be implementing in different ways.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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